Own It – The Real Purpose of Business Systems – Part Four

Own It – The Real Purpose of Business Systems – Part Four

Up to this point in the Own It series, we’ve discussed the importance of responsibility and the employee-manager dynamic. Now we look at business systems and where they fit into this great big business machine.

The fundamental misinterpretation of systemization is that “systems are the solution.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Systems are a means to achieve the solution. The solution is ownership. People who want to avoid the challenge of management tightly grip the belief that systems are the solution.

It’s surely a lovely idea. People manage themselves. All the instructions exist in operations manuals. Everyone knows their role and follows the systems. Systems do the work and people run the systems. It’s seductively simple: management, the most challenging part of business, is no longer necessary.

Systemization proponents serve to make a point through exaggeration that “systems are the solution” and they know it. It’s true that people-dependency, lack of documentation, and disorganization have long been problems in the business world. However, as occurs so often, the proposed solution is an overcorrection and the pendulum swings too far the other way.

The issue is seen as an either/or situation with business systems—system dependency OR people dependency. The middle way represents an and rather than an either/or. The key insight is that systems are a means to promote and support ownership and responsibility. It also must be recognized that systems are more than just how-to’s or system action plans.

Here are some examples of the larger, contextual business systems and how they serve to support ownership in employees:


A clear, written vision of what the business will look like in three to five years is like the picture on the box of the jigsaw puzzle. It empowers employees to know what they’re building and go beyond just following orders. Without it, employees cannot be proactive and must react to the day-to-day edicts of management.

Organizational Strategy

An organizational chart and written result statements for each position is the blueprint for achieving the overall vision. It defines clear expectations, roles and responsibilities, and who is accountable to whom. Employees need to know what is expected of them and where they fit in the larger picture in order to know what part of the vision is theirs to achieve.

Position Agreements

Position agreements define expectations and responsibilities at a lower level. Who is responsible for what, how it serves the result of the position, and generally how it needs to be done. Without clarity of responsibility, ownership is impossible.


Numbers are not just for managers. Employees need to know how they and the business are doing. In the same way, you can’t expect players of a game to do their best if no one is keeping score, managers need to provide quantification to their employees so they know how well they’re playing. Managing employees without sharing appropriate quantification costs your credibility as a manager—much like a coach directing their players to do better without saying why they need to do better or what better would mean.

Inspirational Communication

One of the key principles of adult learning theory is that, unlike children, adults need to know why they should learn what they’re being taught. Children are sponges and will absorb whatever you tell them. Adults are much more practical and unconsciously resist any information you give them that does not come with a compelling why. In other words, telling adults what to do without constantly communicating the why is insane and backfires. Employees need constant reinforcement of the idea behind everything they ought to do, until they can hold and embody the why as well as you can or better.


Marketing is not advertising. Marketing is about understanding who your customer is, how they make decisions, and how they need to be treated. Because your business is about serving customers, Marketing is the basis of everything in your business. Without a clear marketing strategy, your employees cannot make informed decisions about how to interact with customers, serve them best, and exceed their expectations. A marketing strategy is a system to ensure that your customers are met where they are and delighted at every possible moment. Without it, you rely on telling employees how to behave and not giving them a powerful tool to help them understand why, much less innovate.

Did you catch all that? Great. Next week, we’ll wrap up the Own It series by talking about over-responsibility and under-responsibility.

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